In 2011, the existing MacArthur Elementary School was destroyed when the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers flooded due to Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene. The school was the heart of a vibrant city neighborhood and served an ethnically, socioeconomically and racially diverse student population. The project goals were to redefine what an urban elementary school could be, restore and revitalize the surrounding neighborhood and create a deeply sustainable and resilient building and site.
For the new MacArthur Elementary School, an interactive and inclusive design process was created. All stakeholders (community, neighbors, students, school staff and administration) were engaged. Five overarching and qualitative vision statements were created and used as a litmus test for every design decision. These statements allowed participants to contribute from their personal viewpoint and perspective to the final outcome. • We will respect the energy of the site. • We will heal our relationship with the river. • We will create a net zero, fossil fuel-free building. • We will teach. • We will create a safe and welcoming place for students and the community.
The site was part of the larger MacArthur Park and was developed to allow all water coming to and falling on the site to travel naturally downslope and be treated on site. Rain gardens, bio-swales and indigenous vegetation are used to treat water and demonstrate and teach about the hydrological cycle of the site. A community walking trail navigates through these features allowing students and community to learn, engage and enjoy these natural elements.
The building is organized with larger program elements (cafeteria, library, gym, etc.) sitting along higher ground to the southeast. These elements are above the newly established flood plain and relate in scale and articulation to the street and adjacent neighborhood. Three 2 -story classroom wings are raised on columns above the ground to allow the river to flood and recede naturally over time. The classroom wings are oriented to allow maximum daylight into the majority of the classrooms from the north and provide views of the ever-changing river. This orientation allows optimal southern exposure for the photovoltaic panels on the roof.
Energy budgets, daylight and energy modeling were used in an interactive design process. Ground source heat pumps, exposed radiant concrete floors, on demand ventilation and robust controls for lighting and energy allow the building to model at a remarkable 10 EUI.
Locally sourced bluestone and black locust are the primary exterior materials, detailed to relate to the neighborhood and river sides of the building respectively. Development of interior spaces was influenced by student input that “learning takes place everywhere and all the time.” Informal collaborative areas and “in-between spaces” (third space) accommodate ever evolving pedagogy. Interior materials are simple, elegant and subtly color themed by grade level. The project is tracking for LEED Platinum certification.
Since it reopened, MacArthur Elementary is once again a vibrant anchor for the surrounding community. The original vision statements are reflected in the final building and, most importantly, those visions are communicated to the students, staff and community as they interact with the facility. This design process is an example of a whole-building, regenerative design process. It relies on deep stakeholder involvement and the weaving of both quantitative and qualitative goals.